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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya…
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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

by Maya Angelou

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Maya Angelou's Autobiographies (1)

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Showing 1-5 of 94 (next | show all)
I just finished this up last night before shutting the lights out for bed :) This memoir of the author's early life covers the years between 3, when she was sent by train from California to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Alabama, & the age of 16-17, when she became a new mother to her son. She described living through the Great Depression & World War II, the hardships, racism, & oppressed lives her people lived in those days, & I was horrified at the way they were treated & embarrassed to be white while I was reading that. But, the people had their faith, which carried them up, they had their manners, & it tickled me the way she described having those manners instilled, because we had manners instilled in us the same way when I was growing up :) I was touched by the generosity of spirit that was shown in their community, & I wish that communities were still like that.

She did a lot of living in those first short years, that's for sure, & I found myself really admiring her. Great book ( )
  Lisa.Johnson.James | Apr 11, 2014 |
This has been on my to read list for ages. I dare anyone to try and ban this amazing novel. I was so disappointed when it came to an end that I look forward to reading more of the life of Maya Angelou. She must have been a wonder as a youth. I wish I could have met her as a kid but it was great to learn more about her after having met her in college. Not everyone will like the frank way she speaks but its a biography so I think she can tell her story the way she likes. ( )
  SparklePonies | Feb 7, 2014 |
Maya Angelou is a dancer. That was a fact that was not part of briefing on Angelou. Everyone knows her as a poet, as a feminist, as a loud and insistent voice in racial politics – but as a dancer. It makes so much more sense now that I know it, how I perceiver her. When I think of her, I think of a lioness, stretching her face up into the sun, her whole body poised and lithe and twitching with danger. Her lips are parted ever so slightly, just enough to see a hint of the sharp death that resides inside; beauty and blood all coexisting in perfect harmony.

Angelou brings that same dancer’s quality to her prose in [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings]. The book is a memoir, written about her young life, split between the musty hills of Arkansas, the grimy streets of industrial St. Louis, and the gritty streets of Oakland and San Franciso. As a young girl of only three, she and her four-year-old brother were shipped off by their parents to live with a grandmother in Arkansas. The roads were red dirt, and the people scratched out a living in the cotton fields. Left with nothing much else to do, she and her brother sought out the world of books. She worked in the country store her grandmother ran, went to church every Sunday, and she learned the life of segregation in the South. Eventually, she reunited with her mother in St. Louis, a bourgeoning industrial mecca. Sadly she learned the life of a victim in that place, at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. She learned the crazy, jumbled emotions – yearning for attention and love and affection, only to receive the vile attention of a predator. Angelou was shipped back to her grandmother, then to her father, then to her grandmother, and back to her mother again. Instability and chaos rendered her a survivor, and a deeply internal person – much to the benefit of us all.

Angelou’s account of her childhood is raw, but it is also tender and intuitive. In retelling the trials she faced, she provides a broad perspective on so many of the issues that are twisted up in the racial politics of our country. But she never indulges in any self-pity or blame. Through it all, she is that same lioness, twitching with danger and beauty.

Bottom Line: Maya Angelou’s childhood, told with a dancer’s grace.

4 ½ bones!!!!! ( )
2 vote blackdogbooks | Jan 27, 2014 |
This was and wasn’t what I expected. I think I underestimated the historical context and so failed to appreciate the significance of the story I was being told. I found out after I’d finished it that this was effectively the first novel by a Black woman to be so graphically descriptive of the issues that all Black women were facing in the US at the time. Thus, it broke literary barriers and set a standard that has rarely been matched, in part because society has moved on, albeit not entirely.

This first volume of Angelou’s seven volume autobiography, tells the story of her growing up away from her parents in the southern US. Segregation was a daily reality and the two encounters with White people are shown in their horrific detail. But it was, ironically, at the hands of one of her own family that Angelou was to suffer most with an episode that it must have taken considerable courage to relate even 30 years after the event.

The writing style I found frustrating. On the one hand, Angelou is a master storyteller who has an ability to craft poetic prose and use metaphor to an astonishing degree. But there were pages and pages where the writing seemed very banal, events were narrated with a humdrum and routine monotony that made me wonder why the writer was bothering to relate them. This inconsistency was my only gripe with a book which has a huge legacy and an impact on US literature to this day. ( )
  arukiyomi | Dec 28, 2013 |
In the late 80s Maya Angelou's autobiography series – in the Virago editions with matching cover designs – seemed to be everywhere. In ads for book clubs* in the Radio Times; and for ages I remember there being stacks of each title gathered on a big display table in Waterstones, taking up more than half the surface. “Arrogant” and “egotistical” weren't words I heard in real life in those days, but I did pick up the idea that it really was not the done thing to write five volumes of autobiography - essentially the same as is now being said about Karl Ove Knausgard. Again I can't quite remember the words – supermarkets weren't yet selling books, though I was given the idea that these were a supermarket/lowbrow/populist sort of book and not something I would need to bother myself with. (Intellectual snobbery absolutely, but I really don't think it was racism as some may infer. When I was a kid and teenager, racism was really just a thing in the news. The only time I heard any was when a girl called another kid a “chinese flatnose” - these children were so sheltered that even the rare prejudiced one didn't even know the standard derogatory terms. The offender's parents were immediately called, she was suspended for a week - a very big deal as hardly anyone was ever suspended - and plenty of people barely spoke to her for the rest of the term. Discrimination was clearly not on and even as far as religion was concerned the school only ever separated catholics and non-catholics for church and some RE, based on parental background. People from other countries were perfectly welcome as colleagues, perhaps more so because my own mother's parents had been immigrants and only by a matter of months was she not one herself; skin colour seemed neither here nor there. Whilst the environment wasn't as mixed as Zadie Smith's post-racial London school playgrounds – ZS is near my own age – the same attitude was, I think, there.)

That was only fifty or sixty years, though thousands of miles, from Maya Angelou's childhood, where in segregated Arkansas a murderous Klan rampage was something to prepare for, resigned, as if it were an approaching storm - the local police would warn of it but there was no question any authority would actually do something. Yes, there is racism and abuse and poverty in this book (moderate poverty as Angelou's family, whilst not rich, was better off than the labourers who were the main customers of her grandmother's store) – but importantly for the reader it's not all unremitting hardship. That's surely why the book has become a modern classic. There are funny bits, adventures, and great scenes like a church service at least as lively as the one led by James Brown in The Blues Brothers. It's engrossing, and the metaphors are apt and communicate well. They are such an improvement over Annie Proulx's ridiculous similes that I was reading earlier this week. Whoever dismissed this book as rubbishy when I was a kid mustn't have read it and probably assumed that all bestselling authors were as trivial as Danielle Steele. Angelou can definitely write well and whilst it's not an overtly intellectual book brimming with polysyllables, it implicitly ties experiences from the thirties into the genesis of the Civil Rights movement: It wouldn't do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on the night when Joe Louis had proved we were the strongest people in the world. It's evident that Angelou's own mix of hardship and relative privilege gave her the drive and ability to get involved in activism; she has a very self-aware perspective on the experiences of her childhood, both her own and of others. She writes from a black solidarity perspective characteristic of the 60s and 70s (a cultural trend I was made aware of by one of Zadie Smith's essays in Changing My Mind) and virtually never criticises a black person, other than a rapist. Harsh punishments from her grandmother, or instances of black people favouring lighter-skinned people, are simply related and not castigated.

It may seem odd to think of this book alongside Portnoy's Complaint. That was the book I read directly before this one; it was also published a matter of months earlier, 1969/70, and Roth is pretty much of the same generation as Angelou, only five years between them. (Not long ago I read an article which mentioned that so many great American writers were born in or near the 1930s, and the subsequent decades hadn't produced nearly so many of them. Now I can't stop noticing them.) Roth is by now firmly a white male establishment figure – yet as seen in Portnoy he grew up as part of a denigrated minority. There's an obvious major difference from Angelou in that Portnoy ends up equating difficult parents and a stultifying childhood environment with race and culture, with Jewishness itself. Yet what is evident from both books is how very WASP the American popular culture, media and films of the 30s and 40s were: if you were a bright, ambitious kid who dreamed of being part of the wider world, part of you might end up dreaming of being WASP – as does Maya in the first pages of Caged Bird, in her (implicitly) Shirley Temple dress. (Also the powhitetrash girl who does handstands with no pants on instantly brought to mind Portnoy's girlfriend Monkey.) Maya, as she grows up, gets a wider ranging view of black people than Portnoy does of Jewish people, through her family and friends: the well-read middle-class Mrs Flowers, her mother's family of respected prohibition-era gangsters, the grandmother's preference for recitations from black authors and especially the scene where she stands up to the dentist, most of her family's willingness to stand up for themselves and simply all the people you meet if working in a shop – her varied life itself makes her much less likely to create a negative stereotype of her own origins. And her experiences of witnessing blatant discrimination and seeing it challenged, and successfully challenging it herself, are very different from Portnoy's assumptions about his father covertly being held back at work - impossible to say how much was correct and how much paranoia - and of his family's custom of fearfully and disapprovingly keeping out of the way of non-Jews, whilst being a third generation American, sheltered from the impact of the Holocaust. These backgrounds (and undoubtedly some genetics) helped create very different personalities with completely different outlooks on being part of a minority at the time.

It's disappointing that the current top Goodreads review of this is from a US Christian Right mother advocating censorship of the book in schools. Whilst I definitely don't think schools should be censoring the books they stock in their libraries (and I am very proud that my mother once supported me in challenging a tippexed reference to illegitimacy in a book in my own primary school library), I actually don't think Caged Bird is a terribly good idea as a compulsory set text at school age. Sexual abuse and rape are common enough problems that in a large class there are likely to be some kids who've had experiences themselves or know of relatives or friends who have. The events are described in a lot of detail here and could be upsetting and triggering. If kids decide to read such things they should have the choice to deal with them privately and at their own pace (choice and decision about the experience being things that abuse takes away) not in whole-class discussions and material they have to confront repeatedly for essays.

Caged Bird covers some of the same time and region as The Color Purple: a black girl growing up in the American South in the 1930s: but it's much more interestingly written and provides an intelligent interweaving of politics with the story (whereas the Walker book was a melodrama with clumsy ideologically-driven anachronisms). Celie's emergence relatively unaffected by her prolonged trauma made little sense (making her an unfair example for real life). In Angelou's story, containing briefer severe traumas, it's absolutely evident that her own resilience came about because in her childhood and teens she spent time with resilient people who cared about her (even if they weren't always perfect in their responses) as well as sharing some of their genetic inheritance: with the eloquence and insight she looks back on things, she's like the textbook examples of people described as having "earned-secure" attachment. A fine and, more often than expected entertaining writer, whose personality and opinions project from the page. I certainly wouldn't mind reading the sequels.

(Perhaps my rating would have been higher if I hadn't read an old mouldy copy that was exacerbating the cold I already had.)

* To me “book club” still means one of those mail-order things; a “book group” (as per the Channel 4 series) is a bunch of adults who gather together in a cafe or pub to discuss Audrey Nifenegger and Khaled Hosseini novels. ( )
  antonomasia | Dec 1, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Maya Angelouprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rutten, KathleenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book is dedicated to my son
Guy Johnson,
and all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs
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James Baldwin Writes:

This testimony from a Black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women...
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity. I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood, when the people in books were more real than the people one saw every day, have I found myself so moved ...
her portrait is a Biblical study of life in the midst of death."

The Moving and Beautiful autobiography of a talented black woman. She continues her story in gather together in GATHER TOGETHER IN MY NAME, SINGIN' AND SWINGIN' AND GETTIN' MERRY LIKE CHRISTMAS and THE HEART OF A WOMAN.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553279378, Mass Market Paperback)

In this first of five volumes of autobiography, poet Maya Angelou recounts a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence. Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly knit black community there. These very lessons carried her throughout the hardships she endured later in life, including a tragic occurrence while visiting her mother in St. Louis and her formative years spent in California--where an unwanted pregnancy changed her life forever. Marvelously told, with Angelou's "gift for language and observation," this "remarkable autobiography by an equally remarkable black woman from Arkansas captures, indelibly, a world of which most Americans are shamefully ignorant."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:36 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Presents the story of a spirited and gifted, but poor, black girl growing up in the South in the 1930's. Tells how she came into her own, experiencing prejudice, family difficulties, and a relationship with a teacher who taught her to respect books, learning, and herself. The moving and beautiful autobiography of a talented black woman. "I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood have I found myself so moved. Her portrait is a Biblical study of life in the midst of death".-James Baldwin.… (more)

» see all 8 descriptions

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